- Robert Fergusson and the Scottish Periodical Press by Rhona Brown
Rhona Brown’s is only the second book on Robert Fergusson to be published this century. It is the first monograph devoted to the poet since F. W. Freeman’s Robert Fergusson and the Scots Humanist Compromise in 1984. Though some may find its critical idiom too traditional, it is clear, shrewd, and well argued. Clearly deriving from a doctoral thesis, it reads Fergusson as the ‘house poet’ of Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine. Tracking his publications there, Brown relates Fergusson’s pieces to other contributors’ work, contending that the magazine itself gave the poet a sense of a literary community with which he could engage. Beyond that, the Weekly Magazine offers modern readers an illuminating context in which to read Fergusson’s work. This helps reveal that the deftly urban poet was governed by a lifelong preoccupation with the pastoral; sometimes he reacted to news and events with a vibrant, well-nigh journalistic immediacy; the Weekly Magazine made him what his later admirer Robert Burns so wanted to become — a bard.
After a generally well-judged introduction with a rather tokenistic glance towards Habermas, Brown’s chronologically structured book proceeds convincingly if a little mechanically to relate Fergusson’s poems to their magazine context. Another critic might have used a theoretical framework drawn, say, from Gerard Genette’s idea of ‘paratexts’ to look at how poems were embedded in this journal, but Brown relies on intelligent common sense. It does not fail her, and has the virtue of making her book accessible to any interested reader. An astute final chapter examines how Fergusson, admired in the 1770s not just in Edinburgh but across Scotland, came to be presented as unfortunately ignored by the gentry and others in the Scottish capital. By the 1780s, when Burns addressed more poems to Fergusson’s memory than he addressed to any other poet, this was how the author of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect saw him.
Making good use of Matthew P. McDiarmid’s impressive two-volume Scottish Text Society edition of 1953–6, Brown produces a meticulous reading of the Weekly Magazine. This lets her show how its other contributors drew on Fergusson’s example and probably encouraged him to develop his gifts and ideas; so, to give one of several shrewd examples, a writer identified [End Page 149] only as ‘S.D.’ in the 5 November 1772 issue, salutes Fergusson in a poem as ‘canty Robin … Wha sings in Scottish strains with such a grace’; but ‘S.D.’ also writes in the English-language poem ‘A City Storm, in the Meridian of Edinburgh’ about just the sort of details that would fascinate Fergusson in Auld Reikie, published the following year:
The cadies, city merc’ries, now retireTo some shop-door, or warmer ale-house fire.The sutty-men keep close within their lodge,And half-drown’d fish-wives to Newhaven trudge.High swells the strand — the lowly cellar quakes;High blows the wind — the lofty garret shakes;From roofs, six stories high, the slates descend;Now ‘had your hand’ will ne’er your head defend.Walk not the pavement while it boist’rous blows;Keep in, ye fair ones! Come not out, ye beaux!
Brown writes well about the filiations between Fergusson’s English poetry (which, like Susan Manning before her, she values) and his poetry in Scots. Rightly, she tries to avoid viewing Fergusson solely in terms of his tragic fate. Her book is subtly illuminating and satisfying. Any library with good holdings in the area of eighteenth-century poetry should buy a copy.
Yet, occasionally, the close focus on the Weekly Magazine poems means that other interesting aspects of Fergusson’s work are passed over. There is little or nothing on the poem in memory of Fergusson’s mathematics professor that brings the expression ‘surd roots’ into verse for the first time; there is not enough about Fergusson’s Classical education and the use he made of it, though Brown does mention...